Last week, President Barack Obama delivered his first address before the United Nations General Assembly. “Those who used to chastise America for acting alone in the world cannot now stand by and wait for America to solve the world’s problems alone,” he insisted. “We have sought in word and deed a new era of engagement with the world.”
Yet, there remains one obvious exception to this new era of engagement with the world: our continuing embargo of Cuba.
Last April, President Obama declared that “the United States seeks a new beginning with Cuba.” But just last month, he signed a memorandum to continue the U.S. embargo of Cuba, delivering not a new beginning, but a recommitment to a decades-old policy.
The president’s decision to extend the embargo comes after months of lobbying by our Latin American allies, and all but ensures the U.N. will vote later this month to condemn what is now Obama’s embargo. For 17 straight years the world has slammed our unilateral sanctions against Cuba. Last year, only Israel (an investor in Cuba) and the island of Palau voted with us.
Reacting to President Obama’s embargo extension last month, a senior foreign policy advisor to Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva lamented the “negative signal” it sent: “All expectations of change regarding the foreign policy of President Obama’s administration have been frustrated.”
Back in 2004, Obama believed it was “time for us to lift the embargo on Cuba,” because “it has squeezed the innocents in Cuba ... and utterly failed in the effort to overthrow Castro.”
Since then, the president has backed away from his earlier position, opting to keep the embargo in place as “leverage.”
But it is difficult to see what leverage the United States has with respect to Cuba today. No other country in the world has joined the United States in restricting trade and travel to Cuba. Raul Castro’s government now enjoys the broadest economic and diplomatic relationships Cuba has had since 1959. Russia, China, Vietnam and Venezuela extend generous credit terms, and the European Union, Latin America and Canada trade and dialogue with the island.
Speaking at the U.N. earlier this week, Cuba’s foreign minister, Bruno Rodriguez, made clear the terms on which Cuba is willing to come to the table for a “respectful, arm’s length dialogue with the United States, without overshadowing our independence, sovereignty and self-determination.”
To its credit, the Obama administration has taken a few limited steps to ease U.S.-Cuba tensions. Recently, the Obama administration held limited talks with Cuban diplomats concerning common-sense issues like migration and direct mail service. Just recently, it lifted virtually all restrictions on family visits to Cuba — but left the Bush administration’s strict limits on educational and cultural exchanges in place. President Obama also relaxed gift rules, and authorized telecommunications providers to operate in Cuba, which a White House official described this way: “We want to increase the flow of information among Cubans, and between Cubans and the outside world.”
Yet even after these steps, the embargo is still far tougher than it was when President George W. Bush took office in 2001. And, lifting all restrictions on Cuban-American visits to family on the island was not a gesture to Havana, but a gesture to Little Havana’s growing bloc of Cuban-American moderates.
If the Obama administration really wants to open the flow of information to the Cuban people, why not embrace broad people-to-people contacts as did President Bill Clinton, modeled on President Ronald Reagan’s approach to engagement with the Soviet Union? Or, if President Obama truly seeks a new beginning with Cuba, why not take a step further and work with Congress to repeal the travel ban altogether?
Unlike the difficult policy choices the president faces in Afghanistan, Iran and North Korea, taking bold action on Cuba presents no risk, and indisputable rewards.
Allowing all Americans their right to travel to Cuba would be popular at home: 67 percent of Americans and Cuban Americans polled last spring support engaging the Cuban people. U.S. agricultural export and travel industry interests, both struggling in the economic downturn, would gain new and greater market access from opening travel to Cuba. And, the move would benefit the Cuban people, who would gain from increased economic and cultural contacts with hundreds of thousands of American visitors.
The president still has a choice ahead of this year’s U.N. vote on the embargo: deliver on America’s promise to engage the world by engaging 11 million people 90 miles away, or join the pantheon of U.S. presidents who made Cuba their exception.
Anya Landau French, a native of Athens, is research director of the New America Foundation’s U.S.-Cuba Policy Initiative in Washington, D.C.
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